Gacaca courts in Rwanda, a system of community justice used after the genocide in 1994. Image credit: Elisa Finocchiaro

A Rwandan peacebuilding organisation has taken a leading role in the organisation of the first African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Conference. Together with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and under generous financial support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung, Shalom Educating for Peace Rwanda brought commissioners, practitioners, academics and policymakers to Kigali, Rwanda for three days of discussions and debate.

The gathering was convened to tackle some of the common challenges facing African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) as well as to learn lessons from past success. For the first time, those involved in African TRCs were able to debate core issues, from lack of support from governments to unrealistic timeframes given to Commissions to victim-focused vs perpetrator-focused approaches.

The timing of the conference is critical. TRCs are playing an increasingly central role in peacebuilding in local communities and on national levels in many African countries. But their impact has not yet been comprehensively assessed, nor lessons learned from the challenges and successes shared by African TRCs.

A map for collaboration

One of the most consistent issues identified by participants was the lack of involvement of citizens and civil society in TRCs
One of the most consistent issues identified by participants was the lack of involvement of citizens and civil society in TRCs. Locals are often excluded from TRC processes. Reports are not made publicly available, or are inaccessible to the general public. The path of collaboration between local NGOs and TRCs is inconsistent and unclear. This all contributes to shutting out the direct beneficiaries of TRCs, those citizens who should be encouraged to own Truth and Reconciliation processes.

The theme gave Shalom Educating for Peace Rwanda an opportunity to share its own experience of working with TRCs as a local NGO. Shalom was able to promote the importance of grassroots organisations in the implementation of TRCs, noting especially the benefit of involving groups that are politically neutral and that have direct access to local communities.

Pushing further with the idea of integrating Commissions and grassroots organisations, Shalom proposed to participants the creation of a platform where TRCs and local organisations can meet, share ideas and develop approaches for sustainable reconciliation.

The Pan-African Reconciliation Network

The PAREN initiative is specifically expected to mobilize and strengthen the technical ability of societal groups
Conversation around the theme of collaboration resulted in the innovation of a partnership strategy: the Pan-African Reconciliation Network (PAREN). This initiative, to be organised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, has the objective of creating and maintaining an international platform for practitioners, policy makers, analysts and researchers to exchange views, analysis, advice and publications relating to the challenge of promotion of reconciliation on the continent.

The initiative is specifically expected to mobilize and strengthen the technical ability of societal groups. It will develop a database and enable the identification of practitioners who can travel to assist societies and countries undergoing reconciliation processes. Alongside this, a PAREN website, social media presence, print and broadcast media will facilitate the exchange of articles and research.

Meeting the needs of local groups

The contemporary African context invites enormous investment in reconciliation
At the closing session of the conference, participants were reminded that the contemporary African context invites us to invest enormously in reconciliation. Many African countries are perceived as divided societies, with a context that undermines efforts for socio-economic development. This context points to the necessity of establishing effective structures for sustainable reconciliation. 

A successful and sustainable reconciliation process requires freedom, empathy, equality and inclusiveness. It is essential that the needs of everyone are met, including those at the local level, in order to achieve the ultimate end of restoring relationships and interconnectedness.